I spent most of the first full week of June tuned into the Catholic Media Conference, the annual gathering of the Catholic Media Association. The virtual conference offered keynotes from Bishop Robert Barron and Cardinal Wilton Gregory, along with panel discussions, breakout sessions and more.

One of the more fascinating sessions I watched was presented by Dcn. Steve Meyer, who serves the Diocese of Green Bay in addition to his career in communications. He’s the principal and chief strategy officer for the Karma Group, which is working on a campaign to rebrand the local church.

As a social scientist, Dcn. Meyer’s role was to learn, through focus groups, how the church in the Diocese of Green Bay is perceived by Catholics who are engaged or connected, as well as by those Catholics who are disconnected – non-observant or members of other denominations – and those who have no religious affiliation. Karma’s role is to identify the disparity between what people value and what they perceive the church values, and then create a marketing campaign to close the gap.

Among their findings: the Catholic Church is largely perceived to signify order and rules, authority and tradition, whereas respondents valued none of those things. Honesty/integrity, humor and love/compassion were some of the highest-rated traits for those surveyed, but they associated none of those qualities with the Catholic Church (love/compassion was closely associated with Christianity, but not Catholicism).

The church’s good works – the service aspect of our faith – was the only quality universally defended by all the people Karma studied, whether they were Catholics, former Catholics or nones. Generally, anyone who wasn’t an active or connected Catholic had some sort of issue with the structure of the church – the hierarchy, a lack of inclusiveness, etc. – but even those soured on Catholicism strongly defended the church’s efforts to clothe, feed, shelter and educate those in need.

One of the saddest findings, I thought, was respondents greatly valued happiness and joy in their own lives. They wanted it, they sought it, they hoped for it. But no one – not even the most engaged Catholics – reported associating joy or happiness with church. When I asked the presenter how, from his perspective as a deacon, we can generate more joy, he mentioned adding more humor in homilies. But I think the hardest part of being an American Catholic – especially if we are not part of a tight-knit community of Catholics – is that our church has all of the obligations, but few of the celebrations, that are commonplace in other countries.

If we lived in Italy, Mexico, or in many other culturally Catholic countries around the globe, we’d be celebrating our favorite feast days with grand festivals and lavish parades and processions. Young adults would have opportunities to meet other Catholics, in a joy-filled religious context, for dating and marrying. Young children would grow up associating the church with fun and excitement. As it is, in a secular country with scattered populations of Catholics, this is largely not our experience.

Karma’s job, ultimately, was to rebrand the church by gauging each focus group’s reaction to different presentations of the church – the church as servant, the church as good shepherd, the church as the path to salvation, etc. Having completed the study, they chose to base the marketing campaign on the church as good shepherd – because people liked the idea and they wanted to believe it, even if many were unconvinced.

What’s the lesson in all this? My takeaway was, first of all, that the church’s values – beginning with promoting truth in a non-relativistic way, celebrating traditional families and refusing to dump unpopular Bible-based teachings – are too vastly out of step with Western culture for us to live fully in secular culture and in our faith without creating significant discord in ourselves. The exodus from organized religion that has characterized the last couple of decades in this country, combined with historic sex abuse, negative press and more, have made lukewarm Catholics pull away, but they’ve also made outsiders actively dislike the church. That doesn’t mean we have to move to a monastery town to live out our faith – arguably, we should not retreat from the world, but try more deeply to influence it – but we do need to embrace that we are countercultural.

I once visited a Congregational church with a friend. It was your typical mega-church-style blend of trendy café, hip pastor in ripped jeans, Christian rock band on a stage (glaring spotlights and all, with the pastor’s charismatic voice dipping and rising as he intoned his message, perfectly choreographed with the music). It was all very compelling, and there was a lot of emotion in the room – at least a couple of women near me were weeping. But for all the catharsis, it felt empty – the message was soft-serve Christianity, all focused on audience rather than on God. Still, their members get to feel like winners – they have the coolest pastor. Their church (hottest in town!) is a mix of coffee shop, theater and train station. Their pastor preaches creative interpretations of some of the Bible’s less loveable passages. They can be good Christians and still do whatever they want.

My friend, a Protestant who goes church-shopping when she’s discontented, once said derisively that her current pastor’s only message was “be nice” and “Jesus died for us.” But that is the fate of a church not anchored to biblical teachings – instead of grappling with our human frailty, we are assured that we are always good and right, as long as we are nice. Catholicism holds us to a more challenging set of standards. While we humbly aspire to virtue, we should treat others with love and compassion – Jesus’ service-oriented mindset, which has guided the Catholic Church for thousands of years and goes much deeper than “nice” – and conduct our own small-scale rebranding – engage in respectful dialogue with those who are critical of the church or of Christianity, particularly those with no empirical knowledge upon which to base it.

Then, we can ponder joy – what is it? When do we feel it most? How many of those situations are rich in God-given gifts? Joy in doing something we love, joy in being with loved ones, joy in a job well done, joy in the pleasure of a feast or a gift or some new opportunity in our lives – all of these joys come from God. When we go to church, we gather with like-minded people to thank God for the many joys he’s given us. Be aware of it, and share it.